On Becoming A Virtuoso Of Knobs, Buttons, and Sliders

by Thomas Brett

In the course of preparing for a paper on laptop music making as creative practice I’m giving this summer at Cambridge University, I’ve been thinking about how exactly one goes about performing music with/on a laptop: What are the decision-making and problem-solving processes musicians use in performance and in preparing for performance?  I’m approaching topic as a “traditional” musician who is used to grappling with sticks and membranes (drumming), vibrating strings (dulcimer playing), and fingers on a keyboard.  And composing for me has been, up until now, a linear kind of thing where I play or improvise parts to build pieces with beginnings, middles, and ends.  Even my recent electronic recording, Views From A Flying Machine (which I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog), was “through-composed”–layered one part at a time.  Kinda old-fashioned.

But now I’m moving forward and being a futurist!  One of the aims of my paper is to explore how exactly an electronic musician who uses a laptop goes about rendering a piece of pre-composed music in performance.  Many musicians augment their laptops with a MIDI hardware controller of some kind.  This allows them to literally control various parameters of the software running on their laptops.  So, if a musician uses Ableton Live as their software (as I do), the knobs, buttons, and sliders on their MIDI controller can be “mapped” to whichever Ableton parameter the musician would like to control.  A simple mapping might be an effect send, such as a delay or reverb.  Map that effect to one of the knobs on your controller and voila: when you turn the knob, you activate the effect.  The idea is to allow the musician to feel as if they have some tactile control over their sounds (something perhaps taken for granted by acoustic musicians, I might add).

On the website of Livid Instruments, a company that makes beautiful, hand-made controllers, co-founder Peter Nyboer points out that musical instruments are no longer the only controllers in town and that new electronic products offer creative possibilities:

“Strings, reeds, and resonating bodies are no longer the only musical controls, but the industrial conveniences of knobs, button, and sliders have augmented musical reality such that they demand their own vocabulary of virtuosity.”

I like this quote.  First, I never really thought of instruments like the piano or drums as “musical controls.”  Rather, I thought of them as pretty simple extensions of the human body that wants to make sound. (Note: the piano is a far from simple instrument!)  Now that I think about it, no musical instrument is simple.  It’s just that after years of playing, an instrument can feel like it’s an extension of my body, when in fact it remains an object with which I am constantly negotiating! Second, there is no question that electronic music controllers have “augmented musical reality.” Configured the right way, the twist of a knob could trigger exponential musical processes and seismic sonic changes.  It all depends how one sets them up.  Which brings us to Nyboer’s third point: these controllers make their own demands on us, specifically how we think about our musical processes, the software programs we use (or write!), even our philosophy of what music should be. Thus, Nyboer’s “vocabulary of virtuosity” is not just a matter of getting good at knob-twiddling, button-pushing, and fader-sliding.  What is hinted at here is nothing less than using an electronic “black box”–the best controllers, by the way, are pretty much blank slates upon which we can map whatever kinds of musical systems we want–to bring our music making to a new place outside the box.

Here is a clip of the DJ/Producer Eliot Lipp using the Livid Ohm64 with Ableton Live.  Notice what he says at 3:56:

“To me, I’m trying to set up [his controller] in a way where I can have the ability to do a live remix of a track.  Even if it’s something I just brought into Ableton.  If I want to play it out that night, I have all these parameters set up so I can do live edits of the track: loop it wherever I want, and deal with the blend from one track to the next.”

Here is a clip of another intriguing, blank slate controller, the monome, in action: